Put the kids to bed, because we’re talking about Sex Criminals Volume 3: Three the Hard Way, collecting issues 11-15 of writer Matt Fraction and artist Chip Zdarsky’s popular and acclaimed (including by yours truly and other Adventurers in Poor Taste) series about people with the ability to stop time when they reach climax. Is it good?
Sex Criminals Volume 3: Three the Hard Way (Image Comics)
Are you having sex right now? If not, go out and buy Sex Criminals. If you are having sex, please stop reading and focus on pleasing your partner (unless, of course, your partner gets off on having you read AiPT! articles, which I’m sure is a fetish for someone), and when you’re both finished, get dressed, and be sure to take your partner on a post-coital trip to the comic book store to buy Sex Criminals. It’s that good.
In a lot of ways, Sex Criminals is progressing much in the same way as Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim graphic novels – one of my favorite series of all time. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend them to the same audience, but both start with silly premises and a strong sense of humor, yet over time start to become a bit more dramatic and serious without giving up on the humor entirely. More specifically, they explore relationships through the lens of fantastical elements and outlandish comedy.
I don’t want to spend the entire review on that comparison, but one of the key differences is that Scott Pilgrim never explored the nuts and bolts of its characters’ sex lives. It didn’t need to; it wasn’t about that. Yet the fact that Fraction and Zdarsky dive headfirst into these themes means more than just a buttload of more dick jokes.
Indeed, Sex Criminals has a lot on its mind beyond dick jokes (not that the dick jokes aren’t funny), but it does a great job of exploring how peoples’ sexual hang-ups affect their lives and relationships beyond just the physical act of having sex.
The first two volumes (or ten issues) of Sex Criminals did a great job setting up the plot, characterizing the main protagonists, Suzy and Jon, and exploring their relationship. That all continues with volume three (though, as the back cover notes, the “Criminals” part of the title may be fading away a bit, or at least changing its meaning), but there is also some excellent world-building as Susie, Jon, and the readers meet other characters that share the protagonists’ unique abilities.
Perhaps the most intriguing new addition is a character that has this special ability despite being asexual. In general, asexuality does not get discussed or even acknowledged as much as it should, so the thoughtful, respectful inclusion of such a character is a welcome one, and yet another example of how surprisingly forward-thinking the series can be while remaining raunchier than most R-rated sex comedies. It’s also fascinating how Fraction and Zdarsky challenge readers to have a sense of humor about sex without judging others.
Zdarsky’s art remains top-notch. It’s downright unfair that he could have such detailed, charming, and clear art while also being a funny and talented writer in his own right on other comics that he’s not drawing. One aspect of his artistic talents that I don’t think is discussed enough, though, is how tasteful it is, at least if you’re a bit liberal in terms of how you define good taste. Yes, the sex and nudity is explicit, but it never feels pornographic or exploitative. Zdarsky is one of a number of artists that have cropped up relatively recently (Babs Tarr, Fiona Staples, and Nicola Scott all come to mind) that know how to do “sexy” comics right, with diverse-looking characters and men that are drawn just as appealingly as women. That’s not to say that he has a “pin-up” style, but that Zdarsky simply has a realistic depiction of sexiness.
Matt Fraction is lucky to be working with an artist that fits this series so perfectly, but his writing continues to prove that he’s worthy of such great collaborators. Perhaps his greatest talent is his ability to keep his stories dense without making them a chore to read. A lot of this has to do with how well laid out Zdarsky’s pages are, but Fraction has consistently displayed an ability to give readers a lot to chew on without sacrificing the breezy feeling that makes this series such a joy to read.
That’s not to say that the story moves quickly, though. Some readers, especially those that complain about “decompression” in modern comics, may find that there is not enough forward momentum plot-wise to keep them satisfied. But for those readers that prefer character-driven narratives, Sex Criminals remains an immensely rewarding experience as Fraction does so much to explore his characters.
Fraction dabbled in fourth-wall breaking with previous volumes, and he doubles down on those metafictional elements with this volume. There is one particularly memorable scene in which Fraction (with what were clearly significant contributions from Zdarsky) interrupts the flow of the narrative with a lengthy scene in which Fraction himself speaks to Zdarsky about how much he’s struggling to write the pivotal scene that we’d have otherwise read. I’d imagine that some readers would find this lazy, but I’m a sucker for that kind of thing. Not only is it genuinely funny, and not only do I appreciate Zdarsky’s desire to “skip to the good parts,” but it contributes to the book’s broader themes of insecurity.
Is It Good?
I can’t think of any comics that I could recommend more that are this inadvisable to read in public. It’s smart, funny, heartfelt, and progressive, all while remaining utterly filthy. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Sex Criminals is better than sex, but there are few better ways to spend your non-sex-having time.
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